Las Vegas • It’s much easier now, two seasons in the rearview, for Georges Niang to look back and say his path was the right one.
He’s had a strong week of summer league play in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas across five games for the Jazz. After Sunday night’s 20-point effort in a win over the Knicks, Jazz assistant Alex Jensen called Niang an unquestionable NBA roster-worthy player.
It’s validation for the 25-year-old forward, who has mostly bounced around the G League after he was a second-round draft pick in 2016. A standout on a two-way contract for the Jazz last season, Niang has often lived squarely on the line that many players this summer will be faced with: Is it better to keep chasing NBA dreams in the G League? Or is it better to start one’s career in Europe and hope to be called home?
Niang hasn’t faltered in his own answer to the question: He was never leaving.
“If you were this close to your dream, would you think that?” he said. “I was just gonna give it everything I got until they closed the door on me and told me I couldn’t come in. That’s how I think.”
Others in summer league face more uncertainty.
The chances are good that many, if not most, of the players on the Jazz summer league roster will be headed overseas to start or continue professional careers. It’s a hard decision, one not only influenced by the outside hope that an NBA team will come calling, but by being torn from the familiar. A lot of players simply don’t want to go.
LAS VEGAS SUMMER LEAGUE
JAZZ vs. HEAT
When • Tuesday, 2:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPNU
Stanton Kidd, a forward three years removed from his days at Colorado State, can understand. He himself is hoping for an NBA opportunity this year, and he’s one of the standouts for the Jazz so far. But he’s taken a very different course: Kidd spent a season in Belgium, a season in Germany and then last year in Turkey (under former NBA coach David Blatt).
At the time he left college, Kidd didn’t have much opportunity stateside, so he felt compelled to try his luck elsewhere. He understands why others have cold feet, but he also developed his game a lot in the intervening years.
“The biggest thing for me was to go over and get my feet wet overseas,” Kidd said. “I told myself in a few years that I’d be back, and I’d have what they’d be looking for.”
Within the Jazz organization, there are a number of success stories in that vein. Royce O’Neale is perhaps the most dramatic one, coming to the Jazz virtually off the radar after two unheralded years overseas. Joe Ingles had an extensive European career before becoming a late-bloomer in the NBA, while Ekpe Udoh took two years to refine his game in Turkey before returning to the league.
Still, physical proximity to the NBA is something players often crave. It feels closer to the actual dream, even though G League salaries often pale in comparison to the best European salaries. Naz Mitrou-Long, a Jazz two-way player who is extremely close with Niang, said that the players who choose to stay in the G League often have a mix of cultural and goal-oriented reasons for the choice.
“It’s tough for guys because it’s so far away,” he said. “If you want to achieve that dream, you have to bet on yourself. And if that’s going in the G League, then you have to stay in the gym and go work at it.”
In summer league locker rooms, the crossroads for many players is a popular topic of discussion. Rookies ask overseas and G League veterans for advice, comparing notes on experiences and different countries to help make the decisions easier. Mitrou-Long said “all the young guys I know” are asking him for advice, especially if they should stay for their shot in the G League.
It seems the best way, to the players, is to go on a case-by-case basis. But this summer league is showing that either path can lead back to the NBA.
“The biggest thing is the NBA isn’t going anywhere,” Kidd said. “When you’re ready, you’ll know you’re ready. The biggest thing is trusting in your work and going with your gut feeling.”